Wander Minnesota: A Passion for Wood and Music
Up north there are gorgeous lakes, acres of forest, wildlife, birds, winding roads through small towns, and a custom ukulele maker.
Jeff Burger works out of a workshop in Turtle River, a small town north of Bemidji, creating gorgeous ukuleles, often from wood he has harvested himself off his own property.
Burger got his start a decade ago, when his son received a ukulele for Christmas; but the gift’s poor quality sent Burger on a quest to build a better one. A carpenter by trade, he took a scientific approach, testing different kinds of woods and strings, seeing how each wood’s different strength and elasticity affected the instrument’s sound and the structural integrity.
His ukuleles are made primarily of ash and red elm, although he does occasionally work with exotic woods. However, he has concerns over the sustainability of the latter. It can take anywhere from 16-40 hours to build one ukulele, depending on the level of detail and if there’s much inlay involved. Inlay is something he doesn’t use often. “Inlays take time, but don’t add to the sound,” he says. “If I’m going to put in the time, I want it to add to the sound.”
Essentially, his ukuleles are two big pieces, each composed of much smaller pieces, with the pieces bent and glued into the classic ukulele shape. Each one is designed for a specific brand and weight of strings, another part of the extensive testing he’s done; 20 kinds of strings were tested to learn about the different weights and tensions of each. “If the strings and the instrument are mismatched, it will lead to instrument failure down the road,” he says.
Burger’s beautiful ukuleles have been sold all over the U.S., and Burger has heard from customers that they plan on handing them down within the family as heirlooms. While some people view ukuleles as primarily used in Hawaiian music, Burger knows they’re capable of much more than that. For instance, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder recently released a CD of ukulele songs he composed and performed. “They have a broader appeal,” Burger says.
As well they should, when they’re this beautifully built.
What else is happening in our state? Be sure to check out the 10 p.m. Sunday night WCCO newscasts, where you can learn more in the weekly segment, Finding Minnesota.